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My Month in Books: May 2021

The two books I've chosen to write about this month are Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them, and the non-fiction Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore by D Parry-Jones, which were published only a few years apart. Apart from that, they don't have much in common except that both authors wrote about fairies - though not, to my mind, with equal success! 

The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner (Virago Modern Classics 2021, first published 1948)

Having recently read and loved Kingdoms of Elfin (which I wrote about in January’s Month in Books) closely followed by Of Cats and Elfins and the short novel Lolly Willowes, I’ve now turned to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s historical fiction with The Corner That Held Them.

I say historical fiction, but perhaps that’s not quite an accurate description. The novel is set in the fourteenth century, but there’s hardly any history. Or, at least, what there is does not draw attention to itself as it so often does in historical fiction. True, there’s the Black Plague and the Peasants’ Revolt, but they are in the background, and it’s a shadowy one at that. Nor are there are any of the trappings in which historical fiction is usually decked: it is not a murder mystery, a romance, a family saga, or a coming of age novel. In fact, Townsend Warner herself remarked, “It is not in any way a historical novel”.[1]

 


So what is it? Originally published in 1948, the novel tells the story of the inhabitants of Oby, a Benedictine convent. Or rather, it tells the stories of the women who live and die within its walls: Lilias, who longs to be an anchoress; Ursula, a former nun doing penance for her sexual adventures; Prioress Alicia, who is determined to add a beautiful spire to the chapel; and many others. There are also Sir Ralph, the priest who is not a priest; Bishop Walter Dunford; the illegitimate boy Jackie who was brought up amongst the nuns; and many other men connected to the convent. In many ways it feels as if there is nothing holding their stories together, except the fact that they all happen to be in the same time and place. The novel is not about any one of the characters, singly or as a group.

Nor does the novel have much in the way of a plot. Apart from the circumstances behind the founding of the convent, there’s no beginning catalyst, no question to answer, no great denouement. A spire is built, the convent faces financial ruin, a woman is killed, and so on, but none of these are the “story”. As Townsend Warner said, “It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant”.[2] 

Doesn’t sound like much of a novel, does it?

And I thought it was brilliant! I’m not sure I’m wholly convinced by her description of The Corner That Held Them as a novel without a plot about insignificant people. All the characters are significant and none are; everything is plot (or story) and nothing is.

So how does it work without the devices you normally expect from a novel? I think it is because the book is written in such a riveting and unexpected way. It is thoroughly immersive – not in “big” events perhaps (though there are big events) – but in the everyday-ness of the characters’ lives. The Corner That Held Them has all the wit, inventiveness, originality and beautiful prose I’ve come to expect from Townsend Warner.

My only regret is that I did not discover Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books sooner, but now I have the pleasure of reading much more of her work to look forward to – and I have just bought a couple more to be getting on with.



[1] Quoted in ‘The Good Witch of the West’, Eleanor Perenyi, The New York Review, 18 July 1985.

[2] Quoted in ‘Love in Plague Time’, Clair Wills, The New York Review, 16 January 2020.

 

Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore, D Parry Jones (Batsford, 1988, first published 1953)

The Rev Canon Daniel Parry-Jones (1891-1981) was a parish priest in parishes in Glamorgan and Breconshire, and later Rural Dean of Crickhowell and Honorary Canon of Brecon Cathedral. He wrote six books and many articles about Welsh rural customs and legends. Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore was originally published in 1953, and was illustrated by Ivor Owen (1915-2007), a teacher and illustrator of children’s books.

Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore is exactly the sort of book I loved reading as a child. It’s got fairies, magical animals, King Arthur, hidden treasure, lakes, caves, wells, minstrels, and beautiful maidens. Most of the book is about fairies, and is arranged in chapters covering fairy circles, baby snatching, revenge, and marriages between men and fairies, but there are also chapters on lake, cave, well and animal legends.

 


Reading it now, though, I couldn’t tell if it was actually intended for children. On the one hand, the material is presented in a similar way to T G Jones’s 1930 Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom, where it has been catalogued into such areas as ‘Ghosts and Other Apparitions’ and ‘Giants, Hags and Monsters’. Parry-Jones’s chapters are similarly divided into topics including ‘Fairy Lore – General’ or ‘Legends of the Caves’. This gives it an almost erudite air, as does the scholarly tendency to look down on the sources of the material – “the peasant” who confuses “fairies with ghosts, witches and spirits”. Personally, I think the ‘peasant's’ refusal to categorise and define these other-world beings is the wisest way to approach them and their stories.

A Batsford advertisement for a number of new releases in the year of publication does not describe it as a children’s book, and includes it with titles which are obviously for adults (printed in the Times Literary Supplement, 28 August 1943). Parry-Jones’s tone, style and language certainly read like a text intended for adults. But if it is a book for adults, it is not a particularly authoritative one. There is no index, and nor does Parry-Jones provide references for any of the quotations, something which I found frustrating as it was impossible to tell how much was his own paraphrasing and how much taken from another text.

Although Parry-Jones does include a bibliography, it  does not seem to be in any particular order unless it is – bizarrely and also inconsistently – alphabetically by author’s first name, with a few general titles thrown in at random. For example, ‘Welsh Sketches. 3rd series. London, 1854’ (full reference) appears between Elias Owen’s A Welsh Folk-lore and Edwin Sidney Hartley’s The Science of Fairy Tales, with ‘Elias’ before ‘Edwin’. Of course, not every book for grown-ups has to come laden with scholarly apparatus (thank goodness). Nevertheless, on the basis of all the evidence so far, it is a book for adults.

So it is quite odd when the text suddenly erupts into asides that sound as if they belong in a children’s book. A paragraph about a story from the Welsh settlers in Patagonia describes an escape on horseback involving a leap across a gully: “a terrible jump, that was!...I should have liked to have ridden that horse, but not to make that jump!” I expected the words “wouldn’t you, children?” to come next. The fact that the illustrations are by a children’s book illustrator added to my confusion, and I can’t say the illustrations appealed to me all that much whether intended for children or adults. In addition, the author’s occasional intrusion of remarks such as “I suppose” and “I think” suggest a less than complete grasp of his material.

To be honest, there were times I wondered if the author wasn’t just the tiniest little bit batty (or cuckoo?). Telling the story of a cuckoo connected with the festival of St Brynach, Parry-Jones imagines the “distress of the poor bird as it battled with the storms that raged over the Pyrenees, saying to itself: ‘I must get through, tomorrow is St Brynach’s day…’ ” In a children’s book this would perhaps read perfectly well, but here it just struck me as eccentric at best. It is also a clear example of the author adding something to a legend, which reinforced my irritation with the lack of source references. Even as a child this would have irritated me. Having been promised the Welsh legends, it’s the Welsh legends I want, not someone else’s plodding embellishments.

In the end, it is a book that falls between two stools. It is not magical – or well written – enough to make its rendering of the tales particularly appealing, and it is not disciplined enough to provide a reliable source of information about the legends. Even so, it is possible to appreciate D Parry-Jones’s contribution to keeping this rich cultural heritage from disappearing into the darkness, and preserving stories so marvellous that they shine through any retelling.

 


 

 

 



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